This 1919 novel by W. Somerset Maugham is ostensibly a biography in which an unnamed narrator attempts to shed light on the life of the mysterious artist Charles Strickland (a character based on Paul Gauguin). Although he’s stretching the truth when he says, “I knew him more intimately than most,” he did know Strickland personally at a key moment in his career. However, much of what he knows about him, he came to know second-hand, sometimes through stories from people who the narrator himself admits are unreliable.
Thus, this novel is, to a small degree, a demonstration of the problem of biography. The narrator/author has firsthand knowledge of his subject, but that knowledge is limited, and so he must fill in the gaps. He notes that “I find myself in a position to throw light on just that part of his tragic career which has remained the most obscure.” Yet it is just this part of his career that the author knows only secondhand. But perhaps those early years, when he knew him better, are more important anyway, if it’s important at all to know the life behind the work.
Strickland did not initially appear to have the makings of a great artist. His biographer gets to know him only because his wife has made an effort to surround herself with literary talents. Her banker husband seems dull, but pleasant enough. So it was a shock to everyone when he suddenly took off for Paris. Rumor had it that he had run off with a mistress, but the truth was that he just wanted to paint. And paint he did, although hardly anyone was impressed with his talent. The only person who sees much potential in Strickland’s art is a fellow painter who doesn’t like Strickland much but takes the man under his care anyway, much to his later regret.
Besides being a painter of not much note, Strickland is also entirely selfish and oblivious to the needs of others. He leaves his wife without a moment’s concern. He takes another man’s wife without a twinge of conscience. He asks for loans, meals, and cigarettes without ever giving a thought of reciprocating. The narrator says that
To my mind the most interesting thing in art is the personality of the artist; and if that is singular, I am willing to excuse a thousand faults.
But would Strickland’s “singular” personality be in any way worthy of note if he hadn’t produced art that someone later deemed to be a work of genius? At best, most of Strickland’s acquaintances grimly tolerate him. It’s only after his art becomes notable that anyone considers him as anything other than an ordinary asshole. After his art becomes valuable, even his abandoned wife rethinks her view of him, pretending that he didn’t leave her and their children on the edge of financial ruin. His final years in Tahiti are treated as artistic excess, but there’s little interest in how his young wife and servants really feel about him and about their life. What little we know comes at third- and fourth- hand, often from people who are interested in impressing the curious Englishman who’s asking about Strickland.
As for the art itself, it is unsettling and strange, and hardly anyone likes it at first glance. Many never come to like it, but some do find it compelling. The narrator says of Strickland’s paintings:
They were strangely unsettling. They gave me an emotion that I could not analyze. They said something that words were powerless to utter. I fancy that Strickland saw vaguely some spiritual meaning in material things that was so strange that he could only suggest it with halting symbols. It was as though he found in the chaos of the universe a new pattern, and were attempting clumsily, with anguish of soul, to set it down. I saw a tormented spirit striving for the release of expression.
Good art isn’t always pleasing, and, from this, it sounds like Strickland is making good art. There’s something in it. The crude lines and off-kilter coloring point to something bigger. But does it? Or is the narrator reacting to the posthumous praise of Strickland’s work and attempting to see something in it that isn’t there?
How do we assess art? Or a life? Or the interplay between the two? Those are the questions of this book, and they’re never answered. They’re too complicated to answer in just 200 pages. But I don’t think we’re meant to take the narrator’s assessments at face value. If so, this would be a really dull book. (And, as it is, I’m glad that it was a short book. It couldn’t have sustained my interest for much longer than it did.)